Friday, May 29, 2009

I’ve seen - and driven - one version of the mobility future. It’s Nissan’s battery-powered car. And although it’s no 370Z sports car, it ain’t half bad. Spunky to drive, pleasant, tranquil. Now all Nissan has to do is to persuade you it can work for your everyday driving.

The electric-car prototype Nissan allowed journalists to drive recently was its boxy Cube compact converted with the sophisticated lithium-ion batteries and thrusty electric motor that will drive the electric car Nissan plans to sell in the U.S. late next year. The electric car you can buy in 2010 will look a lot more conventional than the Cube. Nissan is working pilot programs in several cities right now to study battery-charging infrastructure and develop policies to help promote electric-vehicle use.

Larry Dominique, vice president for product planning for Nissan Americas, promises that unlike others’ previous efforts to “mainstream” somewhat weird electric vehicles, the electric car Nissan will bring to market will be no oddity.

“First and foremost, it’s a real car,” Mr. Dominique says. It’s his job - and that of Nissan marketers - to help people understand what the new generation of electric vehicles will and won’t be.

Nissan’s battery-powered car is designed to travel as far as 100 miles between charges. Most people do not drive nearly that much every day, so your car doesn’t need the hundreds of miles of potential range you carry around in the gas tank.

There is one other key, and this comes back to the “real car” thing: Nissan’s electric car will be a five-door hatchback with lots of space and plenty of comfort and convenience features. Many people Nissan has surveyed reiterate a single point: They want to drive a more environmentally friendly vehicle (nothing friendlier than a zero-emission battery-powered car), but they don’t want to sacrifice room or comfort.

Nissan’s got that covered. The electric car coming next year will be sized like rival Toyota’s popular Prius hybrid car, with plenty of elbow room and lots of utility. And not weird-looking. Mr. Dominique says the electric car will be more aerodynamically efficient than the sleek 370Z roadster.

One other big point: The car shouldn’t cost much more than a conventional compact car. I’m retaining a guarded skepticism on the cost thing - those lithium-ion batteries are expensive - but a price offset Nissan’s counting on is every buyer qualifying for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

The prototype I drove is remarkable for not being very remarkable. It accelerates briskly if not exactly aggressively; engineers say the acceleration matches that of a standard compact car. It is achingly quiet. And thanks to the weight of all those batteries being carried low in the chassis, it darts around corners better than most “regular” cars.

When the production electric car is launched next year, the initial rollout will be restricted to a dozen or so major markets, probably all fair-weather regions mirroring places in which Nissan currently is running pilot programs, such as the Tucson, Ariz., and San Diego metro areas, as well as Oregon and Nissan’s U.S. headquarters state of Tennessee.

Nissan’s goal is to convince you that at least one car in your garage seldom travels anything near the electric car’s 100-mile range in a typical day. Admit that, and a battery-powered car could serve as a primary vehicle “all week long,” with an internal-combustion vehicle used for longer trips.

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